First-ever Colorado Public Lands Day salutes places that make the state great

Indian Peaks Wilderness.

Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS).

The first Colorado Public Lands Day is set to celebrate the places we all love that define the state's unique appeal.

About a year ago, in May 2016, Colorado became the first state to institute an official holiday saluting public lands--Colorado Public Lands Day, whose initial celebration is slated for May 20, 2017. 

While it is a new holiday, ostensibly inspired in part by the need to answer incidents like the ugly standoff at Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, it also harks back to a long and venerable tradition in the state.  Nearly 36 percent of the land in Colorado is preserved as national park, national wildlife refuge, national forest or other public land, including gems like Rocky Mountain National Park. That includes some of the wildest places left in the country, as well as spots that are prized for outdoor recreation, like Browns Canyon National Monument. Coloradans treasure these lands because they contribute to healthy communities, protect our natural environment, attract business, and provide endless outdoor recreation opportunities. 

In fact, 96 percent of Coloradans visited public lands in 2016, with about 65 percent estimated to do some kind of outdoor recreation each year (helping to support $13.2 billion in consumer spending through the outdoor recreation economy); 84 percent of voters in the state say that the ability to live near and recreate on public lands like national parks and forests is a factor in their decision to live in the West.  

How to join the Colorado Public Lands Day celebration: 

And to further whet your appetite, here are just a few Colorado public lands that protect prize fishing spots, beautiful vistas, ancient archaelogical sites and everything in between: 

Browns Canyon National Monument  

Credit: Arkansas Valley Digital Imaging, flickr.

President Obama officially designated monument protection for this unique landscape along the east bank of the Arkansas River, an outdoor recreation hotspot that is well known for its whitewater rafting, fishing and hiking. The spectacular outdoor playground generates more than $55 million per year in economic activity for the local economy. Additionally, the area features abundant high quality wildlife habitat for a variety of birds and animals including peregrine falcons, golden eagles, big horn sheep and elk herds. 

Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness 

Credit: Alan Cordova, flickr.

Maroon Bells-Snowmass is exemplary of all that the Rocky Mountains are known for and is one of the area's most visited wildernesses. With six peaks over 14,000 feet high, thousands of mountaineers seek its heights every year. One hundred miles of trail lead past alpine lakes, including Maroon Lake, whose reflection of the Maroon Bells has become an iconic image of the state. Hikers are drawn to the area's clear, blue skies, the hot springs at Conundrum Creek and a plethora of wildflowers in midsummer. The area was designated when the Wilderness Act passed fifty years ago, in 1964.  

Mesa Verde National Park  

Credit: Mason Cummings (TWS).

Mesa Verde was the first national park designated with the express purpose of preserving "the works of man"—in this case the remnants of 6th-12th century Ancestral Puebloans, as exemplified by more than 4,000 known archeological sites, including some of the most notable and well-preserved in the U.S. The park’s signature attractions are some 600 ancient dwellings carved into rock alcoves, stumbled upon by a pair of cowboys—who called it “Cliff Palace”—in the late 19th century. At that point, Mesa Verde had been vacant for hundreds of years. Experts think the last Puebloan residents of the area were forced out when a booming population eventually exhausted natural resources and was torn apart by internal strife. Since 1906, the park has been preserved for the enjoyment and education of all Americans (though oil and gas development in the area pose a threat to the landscape). Tours of the site offer details on these lives, and trails provide opportunities for hiking and snowshoeing. The 360-degree panoramic view at Park Point is one of the most breathtaking in the country. 

Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge 

Credit: Rich Keen (USFWS), flickr 

Take a short jaunt from downtown Denver (ten minutes) and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a vast grassland prairie that is one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the nation. The refuge offers a great opportunity to learn about native prairie species, including the iconic bison, which was recently introduced at the arsenal. Watch for coyotes and golden eagles too! 

Great Sand Dunes National Park  

Credit: NPS

Sand deposits of the Rio Grande have sculpted the tallest dunes in North America in Great Sand Dunes National Park, some reaching 750 feet in height. These, as well as surrounding grasslands, wetlands, alpine lakes, high mountains and ancient forests make this park one of the most picturesque and biologically diverse in the U.S. Great Sand Dunes National Park is a major hiking, camping and horseback riding destination, and seasonal Medano Creek offers beach activities like wading and tubing in the spring

Mount Evans Wilderness 

Credit: Casey McCallister, flickr 

Mount Evans has two fourteeners, including the one closest to the city of Denver. To access the heart of the area, visitor must drive the highest paved road on the continent, the Mount Evans Scenic Byway. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats roam its peaks. The area also has regions of watery arctic tundra, which are rare south of the Arctic Circle. 

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument 

Credit: Bob Wick (BLM), flickr.

This sprawling, landscape-scale monument in southwest Colorado contains thousands of known archaeological sites that have yielded invaluable historical information on Ancestral Puebloan (sometimes referred to as “Anasazi”) and other indigenous cultures. A nearby museum contains millions of items chronicling those peoples as well as historic Ute and Navajo populations (the protected area is considered to have ancestral links to dozens of modern-day tribal nations). Three original villages within the monument have been prepared for visitors and outfitted with interpretive signage, making it an essential destination for anyone with an abiding interest in Native American culture (though a huge number of dwellings, shrines, petroglyphs and other artifacts remain unlabelled). 

Dinosaur National Monument (Colorado/Utah) 

Credit: Mark Stevens, flickr.

Fossil hunters have been unearthing the bygone beasts in this monument for over 100 years, and the list of species it has yielded includes icons like AllosaurusApatosaurusDiplodocus and Stegosaurus. First protected under the Antiquities Act by President Woodrow Wilson and later expanded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dinosaur National Monument is aptly-named. Situated between Utah and Colorado, this stretch of mountains, canyons and desert comprises a major chunk of the Morrison formation, an expansive sedimentary rock unit that is considered the most productive source of near-complete dinosaur skeletons in North America. Among highlights is the Quarry Exhibit Hall, which allows visitors to view an enclosed quarry-face “wall” of about 1,500 dinosaur bones. The Carnegie Dinosaur Quarry, situated below that exhibit, was an especially bountiful fossil site.